Jay Odom speaks on the highlights of his career as a local developer and the things he wishes he could change.
DESTIN — It was on a trip back home to Shalimar in 1987 with $300 to his name that local developer Jay Odom made a deal that changed the course of his life and the landscape of Northwest Florida.
As a 31-year-old, Odom was living in Austin, Texas, working as a sales associate for a real estate firm. In the years leading up to his position, he earned $4 an hour while in the same company's training program, where he made copies and ran errands for other employees.
It was after being introduced to the Henderson family while down for that summer trip, however, he learned they owned about a 5-mile stretch of beachfront land from the county line between Okaloosa and Walton all the way to Holiday Isle.
With no money, Odom offered to buy 209 of the undeveloped lots in Crystal Beach. Over 30 years later, he became one of the top developers in Okaloosa and Walton counties.
"I had no fear of failure because I had nothing to lose," Odom said about purchasing the Crystal Beach property. He was sitting in his Destin office on a recent Friday, sporting neon shoes he's come to be famous for wearing with his business clothes. "If I lost everything, I would have been no worse off because I started with nothing."
The owners agreed to sell Odom the property over one year later. The same day he closed on the whole parcel for $1.7 million, he sold about 50 lots and used the money to pay the down payment back to the Hendersons for the parcel.
"Then I had to sell enough lots to make enough money to make the payment every year," he said. "The first lot I sold was to my sister for $9,000. She said she believed in me enough to buy one lot. As I made money, I invested it into building more."
Odom continued on with development after finishing the Crystal Beach Project three years later. Surrounding Odom in his conference room is one photo for each project he has developed over the years, from a medical marijuana plant to the new waterfront Wharf restaurant in Niceville.
Not yet on the wall is his newest project, a 52-acre mixed-use development — Freedom Beacon Park — that he says will reshape the heart of Fort Walton Beach by creating a new town center.
Some of his well known projects are Uptown Station on Eglin Parkway in Fort Walton Beach and Destin Executive Airport. Another one of his larger projects is Hammock Bay, a 3,000-acre master planned community on Choctawhatchee Bay in Freeport.
"It's been challenging, exciting and fun along the way," Odom said about his career. "The one thing I really love about this business is that we take something from start to finish. We get to see a piece of land with nothing on it to the planning stage, the development stage all the way to either to people living there or to the jobs that were created."
Fair share of controversy
While Odom said he has been very successful as a developer, he hasn't been spared conflict or bad decisions over the years.
One of his most controversial development decisions, he said, was fighting to move U.S. Highway 98 away from Destiny by the Sea to create more beachfront property.
"A lot of people were against it, Odom said. "Citizens pushed for a referendum so they could vote on it. I think the only person who voted to move the road was my mom.
"It was a race. I finished and opened the road before the vote. People screamed and hollered and wanted the road put back, but we had already dug it up."
Odom also caused a stir in the community when he was sentenced to six months in federal prison after pleading guilty to breaking federal election campaign limits.
Odom directly and indirectly solicited employees of his business entities and their family members to each make the maximum allowable contributions to the authorized campaign committee of a presidential candidate, according to FBI records. The employees were encouraged to make these donations with the understanding that Odom would advance funds to or reimburse these individuals for their contributions.
"That was a tough thing for me," Odom said. "I gave Mike Huckabee money. I didn't know the man and I wanted to meet him, that's why I did it. It was definitely an orchestrated effort by (President) Obama to take out the top donors in Florida. When I came back, some of the banks didn't want to do business with me. My track record in banking was really good, so some of them stuck by me. I learned a lot."
Aside from the sentence and the road, Odom said one of his worst decisions was starting a medical marijuana plant in Florida. Odom, who insists he has never smoked weed, said he was drawn to the business after learning of its "medical benefits."
"I never knew that," Odom said. "I was raised Baptist, so I was taught that if you do drugs, you die. I eventually learned not only was it financially beneficial but (also) medically beneficial.
"If I could do one thing over, it would be that I would have never done it. It was two years of unbelievable work and stress. It was cutthroat. I was very fortunate to sell it and move on. It's kind of hard to tell your kids to not do marijuana when you're selling it as a business."
'I really care about the kids'
Now at 63, Odom looks forward to seeing Freedom Beacon Park and Hammock Bay come to fruition as he's done for so many developments before them.
As for the things he's done right, Odom said he's proud of the relationship and reputation he built for himself in the area.
Other things besides development, however, are now competing for his attention.
Odom said his two boys are teenagers, so he wants to spend more time helping them with their future endeavors. And, at the same time, he said child philanthropy is a calling he can't ignore.
For many years, Odom has provided scholarships to children and young adults through local programs such as Take Stock in Children. He said in his later years he plans to do even more to help young, hard-working individuals get started with their careers.
"My relationship with the area hasn't always been peaches and cream, but it's been pretty good," Odom said. "Back when I began I was known as the boy from Texas, and it was their job to kick my (expletive) back to Texas. After doing this for over 30 years, I've had the good fortune of building up a good track record and reputation with the municipalities and community.
"As I move on and finish up developing, I want to leave a legacy that I was a good guy, ethical, reliable and that the things I did left a mark on people's lives."